Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 15 November 2023


Rishi Sunak and the Strange Death of Conservative England


Anti-Israel protests have overrun central London every Saturday since Hamas murdered some 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7. Marchers have celebrated the terror group, called for jihad and the destruction of Israel, obstructed train stations, launched fireworks at the police, and engaged in recreational Jew-baiting. The Labour Party and Sadiq Khan, the city’s Labour mayor, have backed them. The police have indulged multiple breaches of British law in the name of “community relations.”

Advertisement - Scroll to Continue

The most sacred days in the country’s civic calendar fell last weekend. Saturday was Armistice Day, when the British honor their war dead with two minutes of silence, followed by Remembrance Sunday, with its ceremonies and second rite of silence at the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall. The head of the London police didn’t object to Saturday’s march. Mr. Sunak merely disapproved. Ms. Braverman broke ranks.

The marches, she wrote in London’s Times on Nov. 8, are “highly offensive.” A “show of strength” on Armistice Day would amount to “an assertion of primacy by certain groups, particularly Islamists” akin to the Orange marches that disfigure the streets of Northern Ireland. The linkage between some of the organizers and “terrorist groups, including Hamas” also evoked the Troubles. Senior police officers were “playing favorites,” and the disorder and incitement were worsening. In the interest of “the broader public good,” the state should proscribe the “hate marchers.”

London Telegraph poll found that 72% of Conservative voters agreed the event should be canceled. Another survey revealed that only a fifth of Britons, most of them young, supported the protesters. The march went ahead. On Saturday, a motley crowd of soccer fans and far-right nationalists pushed through the police lines near the Cenotaph and held a two-minute silence in impeccable order. Then they brawled with the police and the much larger anti-Israel contingent. Ms. Braverman’s warning was vindicated.

The Conservative Party is 20 points behind in the polls, and Mr. Sunak has favorability ratings worse than President Biden’s in the U.S. This was his last chance to pivot toward public opinion on immigration, Islamism, integration and the culture war. Instead he dumped Ms. Braverman, tribune of the party’s restive right wing, and hired David Cameron, a social liberal, as his new foreign secretary. If the latter sounds familiar, it should: Mr. Cameron was prime minister from 2010-16. He resigned after his campaign to stay in the European Union failed in that year’s Brexit referendum. Rather than honor his promise to respect the public’s vote, he retired to write his memoirs in a mobile shepherd’s hut on his Cotswolds estate. He then is reported to have earned millions advising the finance group Greensill Capital, which collapsed in 2021, and as vice chairman of an unsuccessful U.K.-China investment fund.

Advertisement - Scroll to Continue

This shuffle isn’t a pivot to the center. It is a collapse into factional folly. The Conservatives have traditionally been successful because they change their leaders and policies to suit the public mood. Mr. Sunak, like Mr. Cameron before him, has shown how out of touch he is by setting the party against the people. The Conservatives, masters of in-house assassination, are committing electoral suicide.

The party is losing the public in more ways than one. Since the 1960s, the old Conservative base has atrophied. The aristocracy, church and officer class no longer set the tone from the Tory heights. Affluence and higher education have turned the once-respectable middle classes into lifestyle liberals. The party has, however, remained posh enough to shun the patriotic working and lower-middle classes, and provincial enough to patronize the children of immigrants such as Ms. Braverman.

The long rhythm of British politics is now against the Conservatives. British voters stick with a party until it achieves total incompetence. This usually takes about 13 years. The Conservatives ruled from 1951-64; Labour (with a Conservative interlude) from 1964-79; the Conservatives from 1979-97; and Labour from 1997-2010. The Conservatives are now in year 14 and imploding on schedule. Exile awaits.

Mr. Cameron will resort to the Cotswolds. Mr. Sunak will probably flee to a sinecure in Silicon Valley. The Conservatives will change or die, as the old Liberals did. In 1906, the Liberals, the default party of Victorian politics, won the kind of landslide that Boris Johnson did in 2019. A decade later, they split over economic and culture-war arguments similar to those now splitting the Conservatives. Then, it concerned female suffrage, imperialism, Ireland and an alliance with France; now, it’s Islamism, immigration, Ireland and Brexit. By 1957 there were only five Liberal members of Parliament. As the joke went, they held their party meetings in the back of a London cab.

This, as the title of George Dangerfield’s 1935 book had it, was “The Strange Death of Liberal England.” We are now witnessing the strange death of Conservative England. The default party of government lost its people and then its principles. Now it will lose power, and then its purpose. But as English liberalism survived the death of the old Liberal Party, so English conservatism will return.

When it does, it will sound more like Ms. Braverman and Nigel Farage than Mr. Sunak and Mr. Cameron. It will stand for strong borders, law and order, cultural cohesion, economic growth and free healthcare. It will probably still be called the Conservative Party, but it will resemble a European-style populist one with a surprisingly large number of nonwhite voters. They too will expect it to conserve England. Stranger things have happened.

Mr. Green is a Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

No comments:

Post a Comment